Written by Judd Spicer
When it comes to creating the perfect sheet of ice, RJ Schultz isn’t one to freeze up.
The Ice Plant Manager at Acrisure Arena, Schultz is responsible for ensuring ideal skating surfaces for both the Firebirds’ home sheet, along with the ice at the adjoining Berger Foundation Community Iceplex.
Just how passionate is the desert’s Ice King about crafting the perfect surfaces?
Here’s a clue: Schultz named his dog “Zamboni.”
From man’s best friend to blades’ best sheet, Schultz’s purview is part passion, part science, part pedigree.
“Growing up in Toledo, in high school, I was one of those kids who would skate out during intermissions,” Schultz recalls, “and I’d move the nets for the Zamboni at the Huntington Center, where the Toledo Walleye (ECHL) play.”
After his own hockey career concluded at the competitive Junior level, Schultz didn’t require any time to “chill” out.
“When I was done with hockey, I came right back into the industry and really learned how to drive the Zamboni, along with everything integrated with the Huntington facility,” he continues. “I learned everything about the ice: Proper temps; taking the ice in and out for games and shows; all aspects.”
The hometown job working with the Walleye soon segued to running the changeover crew at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit (home of the Red Wings); Schulz would then become the Head Ice Manager at the DCU Center on Worcester, Mass., home of the eponymous Railers, ECHL affiliate of the New York Islanders.
In concert with the franchise’s debut on Acrisure’s feature sheet, the complementary Iceplex facility opened for team practice in early November. Further use of the Iceplex – ranging from figure skating to youth hockey to adult leagues – will start seeing expanded community use around the onset of 2023.
Schultz is wholly aware that the Iceplex rink will soon host a full calendar of multi-purpose, multi-use guests, while the Firebirds’ main rink will be a shared, changeover event space filled with shows and concerts.
With the Acrisure unveil, Schultz is fully focused on mastering his new toys, fresh tools and maiden ice.
Per the “Ice Plant” in his job title, the term refers to the massive, state-of-the-art giant motor system located outside the arena; oh, and Acrisure has two of them.
“With our ice plant, we’re a concrete slap, and it’s considered a ‘floating slab,’ which just means that it’s not connected to the seating concrete,” Schultz details of the facility’s design. “And there’s a tunnel of about an inch where the slab can actually move just a little bit if it needs to.”
The secret sauce of creating the ideal sheets is a study which Schultz endeavors toward perfection.
“The cooling coils are in the slab, about eight inches deep, and they are running Glycol and Ammonia through at about 11 degrees, pulling the heat down from above to freeze the ice,” continues Schultz, a Certified Ice Rink Manager through the U.S. Ice Rink Association. “So, the Glycol comes out and pulls that heat from the 140-degree water that I’m laying down on the ice. It then pulls that heat through, and sends it back through the ice plant and up through the cooling towers, which then cycles it back through. That’s what freezes the ice instantly, the reverse osmosis, which means there’s no oxygen in it, which helps it stay clear and freeze faster.”
The job requires constant and esoteric study of both atmospheric conditions beyond Acrisure’s walls and, more importantly, inside the arena.
“I have the opportunity to control of the temperature of the building, the dehumidifiers, the ice temperature,” says Schultz. “I’m very passionate about having the best ice. Great ice brings great players; people want to play for a team that has the best quality sheet, the best facilities.”
Per Schultz’s proclivities as he continues to study the new surrounds, he prefers 40 percent atmospheric humidity in the building, with about a 60-degree arena temperature and an ice slab temp of about 15-degrees.
“And then infrared temperature – which is the temp taken coming down on top of the slab – of about 20-degrees,” Schultz adds, “so there’s four or five degrees to play with.”
Such conditions, with even a few deviations in degree, all lead to a Goldilocks philosophy of creating and maintaining ice sheets which aren’t too soft, aren’t too hard, aren’t too anything but perfect.
“Some ice is too mushy and some gets too hard, too dry,” Schultz explains. “It’s finding that perfect balance, so our guys can really dig their blades in, turn, push off and get to full speed as quick as they can. This is a very skill-based team, and Coach Bylsma and I have talked about the ice each day, and how it’s getting better; and especially when we get on the Acrisure ice, we’ll talk all the time about the surface.”
Schultz’s conversations further include a hockey indoctrination of the twelve-person team hired to drive the Zamboni over both rinks. Echoing a market new to professional hockey, many of Schultz’s charges – ranging in age from a teenager to multiple retirees – are puck nascent.
“Nine members of my team had never seen a Zamboni before. I’m teaching some of them the hockey lingo, teaching about how the game is played, the places on the ice,” he says. “But it really a fun challenge to get everybody trained, and I also like teaching them my way of driving, as opposed to having operators who, say, may be set in their own ways after doing it for 20 years.”
Across the start of the season, Schulz will operate the Zamboni for all Firebirds’ practices and games with an assistant/understudy in-tow. Akin to his own style of ice creation, he revels in the opportunity to instill his approach of driving.
“Everybody drives a little differently,” adds Schultz. “So I enjoy teaching them how I like my turns to go; I like my turns more squared, as opposed to just a round turn coming out of the boards. Then there’s driving speed, how much water to put down, exactly where to put down water and when to turn your water off.”
As an eager fan base traverses desert sands to enjoy the new arena, the valley’s Ice King gains continued footing on his frozen ground.
“This is a great opportunity,” Schultz concludes. “And also kind of the thinking that, ‘Hey, if I can make great ice in the desert, I can do it anywhere.’ And the whole opportunity to start from a brand new building is such an intriguing part of the job. This is an opportunity to make this ice my own.”